The Jewish Museum opened a century ago, with 26 objects of ceremonial art donated by a local judge as the core of its collection.
The museum’s centennial was celebrated Wednesday at the Fifth Avenue mansion that now houses displays of Jewish culture spanning the globe, from ancient archaeology and modern art to a menorah used by Jews in Iraq.
“So many great artists were Jewish — like Marc Chagall, who came from Russia, or Amadeo Modigliani, who was Italian,” said comedian Robert Klein, who attended the centennial reception. “The older I get, the more Jewish I feel. And to me, that means the cultural immersion you find in this museum.”
Those working at the museum, once the home of German-born investment banker Felix Warburg, have a stated mission: “We are an art museum presenting Jewish culture for people of all backgrounds,” Joan Rosenbaum, the museum’s director since 1981, said. “This gives us tremendous scope, because we combine art and history.”
The museum opened on Jan. 20, 1904 as part of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and moved to its current site in 1947.
The centennial will be highlighted in exhibits extending over the coming year, including a major retrospective of the paintings and sculptures of Modigliani.
As the museum grew over the 20th century, Rosenbaum said, “there were major Jewish immigrations, there was the Holocaust — and it all became part of our institutional consciousness.”
The museum’s exhibits have reflected world-acclaimed art and novelties such as psychoanalysis, created by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian Jew, and the theory of relativity, developed by German-born Albert Einstein.
The museum also has broken cultural molds with concepts that have raised the hackles of some observers. For example, last year’s show of Nazi imagery included a concentration camp built of Lego blocks, which was criticized by some Holocaust survivors. That display was then placed in a separate area with a warning sign to those who wished to avoid it.
As The Jewish Museum enters its second century, it continues to redefine the Jewish heritage in such projects as a centennial exhibit of American art linked to the Jewish experience and an annual film festival presented across town at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Jonathan Glass, a 17-year-old museum volunteer who introduces children to exhibits, offers his take on his Jewish identity: “What makes me different as an American Jew is that I’ve got both the American culture and the Jewish culture. Being Jewish means that we adapt to the cultures around us.”
Mattie Kahn, an 11-year-old visiting the museum with schoolmates, echoes Glass: “To be Jewish is to believe that there’s something out there greater than just you. Jewish culture incorporates other people’s ideas.”